Digging for liquid gold

  • WELL DIGGER: Doug McCabe

    Rebecca Clarren
 

Note: This article is a sidebar to this issue's feature story.

KLAMATH FALLS, Ore. - Farmer Doug McCabe didn't wait for the Bureau of Reclamation to announce that it wasn't delivering any water this year. With only junior water rights, he suspected that drought would force the agency to cut his water off early in the summer. So, he drilled a well.

"I'm refinancing the ranch and going into debt to pay for it," says McCabe, as he stands between a dry irrigation ditch and a heap of dirt from the freshly dug well. "But it's worth it; if we don't drill this well, the value of the land is nothing."

McCabe wasn't the only one to think ahead. Nearly 200 new wells have been dug in the basin since the first of the year. "That's way above normal," says Fred Lissner of the Oregon Department of Water Resources.

While wells have enabled farmers to save their topsoil from blowing away and to grow some hay for livestock, many believe that wells will only exacerbate water shortages, because the size and depth of the aquifer is connected to how much water stays in lakes and rivers.

"I have big concerns about the groundwater," says Bill Gaines of the nonprofit California Waterfowl Association. "We've already screwed up the total river system; now we're going to screw up the underground system, too."

Because surface water has always been abundant in the basin, no one has bothered to figure out how much water lies underground. While Oregon, California and the U.S. Geological Survey have begun a coordinated study, no one yet knows how big or deep the aquifer really is.

"We wish we were a few years along with these studies," says Lissner. "We don't feel like we were proactive enough."

But for now, Lissner says he's not worried. After pumping 1,300 gallons a minute for 10 weeks this summer, the aquifer dropped by only 12 feet, which, Lissner says, isn't very much. Even so, the long-term abundance of the aquifer is "no-man's land," he admits.

Karen Russell of the nonprofit WaterWatch says Oregon and California have no business granting well permits before studies are complete. Although the majority of the new wells are permitted only for one year, Russell says that once a well is drilled, there's nothing to stop people from continuing to pump its water.

"We shouldn't be considering new well applications until we have the data," Russell says. "As with the surface water in the basin, we shouldn't be rushing to develop groundwater until we understand what's environmentally sustainable."

High Country News Classifieds
  • ELLIE SAYS IT'S SAFE! A GUIDE DOG'S JOURNEY THROUGH LIFE
    by Don Hagedorn. A story of how lives of the visually impaired are improved through the love and courage of guide dogs. Available on Amazon.
  • COMING TO TUCSON?
    Popular vacation house, furnished, 2 bed/1 bath, yard, dog-friendly. Lee at [email protected] or 520-791-9246.
  • NORTHEASTERN UNIVERSITY
    All positions available: Sales Representative, Accountant and Administrative Assistant. As part of our expansion program, our University is looking for part time work from home...
  • COMMUNICATIONS ASSOCIATE DIRECTOR
    Position Title: Communications Associate Director Location: Flexible within the Western U.S., Durango, CO preferred Position reports to: Senior Communications Director The Conservation Lands Foundation (CLF)...
  • HISTORIC HOTEL & CAFE
    For Sale, 600k, Centennial Wyoming, 6 suites plus 2 bed, 2 bath apartment. www.themountainviewhotel.com Make this your home or buy a turn key hotel [email protected]
  • MAJOR GIFTS OFFICER
    High Country News, an award-winning news organization covering the communities and environment of the Western United States, seeks a Major Gifts Officer to join our...
  • RUBY, ARIZONA CARETAKER
    S. Az ghost town seeking full-time caretaker. Contact [email protected] for details.
  • VICE PRESIDENT, LANDSCAPE CONSERVATION
    Basic Summary: The Vice President for Landscape Conservation is based in the Washington, D.C., headquarters and oversees Defenders' work to promote landscape-scale wildlife conservation, focusing...
  • BRISTOL BAY PROGRAM DIRECTOR
    Seeking a program director responsible for developing and implementing all aspects of the Alaska Chapter's priority strategy for conservation in the Bristol Bay region of...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The National Bighorn Sheep Center is looking for an Executive Director to take us forward into the new decade with continued strong leadership and vision:...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Powder Basin Watershed Council, based in Baker City, Oregon, seeks a new Executive Director with a passion for rural communities, water, and working lands....
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Powder River Basin Resource Council, a progressive non-profit conservation organization based in Sheridan, Wyoming, seeks an Executive Director, preferably with grassroots organizing experience, excellent communication...
  • ADOBE HOME
    Passive solar adobe home in high desert of central New Mexico. Located on a 10,000 acre cattle ranch.
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Eastern Nevada Landscape Coalition, based in Ely, Nevada is looking for a new executive director to replace the long-time executive director who is retiring at...
  • STEVE HARRIS, EXPERIENCED PUBLIC LANDS/ENVIRONMENTAL ATTORNEY
    Comment Letters - Admin Appeals - Federal & State Litigation - FOIA -
  • LISA MACKEY PHOTOGRAPHY
    Fine Art Gicle Printing. Photo papers, fine art papers, canvas. Widths up to 44". Art printing by an artist.
  • LOG HOME IN THE GILA WILDERNESS
    Beautiful hand built log home in the heart of the Gila Wilderness on five acres. Please email for PDF of pictures and a full description.
  • CARETAKER
    2.0 acre homestead needing year-round caretaker in NE Oregon. Contact [email protected] for details.
  • SEEKING PROPERTY FOR BISON HERD
    Seeking additional properties for a herd of 1,000 AUM minimum. Interested in partnering with landowners looking to engage in commercial and/or conservation bison ranching. Location...
  • COPPER STAIN: ASARCO'S LEGACY IN EL PASO
    Tales from scores of ex-employees unearth the human costs of an economy that runs on copper.